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Castoff conversions

Discards discover new life in hands of clever crafters

By NATHANIA SAWYER Special to the Democrat-Gazette

This article was published August 2, 2014 at 2:10 a.m.

Nathania Sawyer photo/ Cheryl Thielemann makes useful items, such as this lamp, from other peoples castoffs.

A crib becomes a toy box. A suitcase is now a footstool. Dusty glassware changes into a towering totem. No, it's not a scene from the latest Transformers movie. The mantra of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" is being replaced by "Reinvent, Repurpose, Upcycle" by creative do-it-yourselfers who take cast-off furniture and housewares and transform them into something completely different.

Look beyond the broken leg, old paint or missing drawer and focus on the personality. The carved posts, curved arms, clean lines or intricate shapes can become the focal point of a repurposed showpiece that reflects your unique style.

A word of caution ... repurposing can become an obsession, as these three women discovered. They turned their passion for repurposing into everything from a hobby and a brick-and-mortar business to an online educational mecca.

The Blogger

Gail Wilson's blog, My Repurposed Life (, features detailed instructions for creating items out of doors, shutters, headboards and a wide variety of other materials. More than 367,000 people follow her posts on the site, Facebook, Twitter and other social media channels.

Her background as a teacher helps her create the easy-to-understand online tutorials. "So many people think my business is selling the pieces that I make, but I don't make them to sell. I make them so I can teach you how to do it," says Wilson, who lives in Louisville, Ky.

Like Pablo Picasso, who said that every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction, Wilson looks for the hidden use within each piece of furniture. "In my mind, refurbishing a dresser means that you give it a fresh new look or update the paint ... whereas, I grab a saw before I grab the paint and cut it up and then it's repurposed into a new item -- for a different purpose than just a dresser," she says.

Wilson says that every project is different: "I've made at least 15 headboard benches, and none of them have been the same. It's the way the headboard is

made. ... If the braces are too high or too low, you have to create something to support the bench [seat]."

She shares a few tips for beginners:

• Use a jigsaw to cut up furniture.

• Add some new lumber to improve support in a piece.

• Take advantage of hardware store services. For example, some stores will make free wood cuts for customers.

• Use primer to help see the potential in a piece. "Sometimes with wood tones, it doesn't speak to me; I can't figure it out. [After priming the piece] I can see something different in it," Wilson says.

The Shop Owner

Cheryl Thielemann, owner of The Velvet Otter home decor store near Eureka Springs, says when she lived in Little Rock she would go to all kinds of estate sales and accumulated a lot. Thielemann says, "When I came back to Northwest Arkansas in 2007, I had so many things. I needed to downsize and part with some items, so I got into the booth type of business in different antique malls."

She opened her shop in 2012 and filled it with her handiwork as well as items created by other artists. "I love that it is recycling and reusing, helping the environment and keeping the landfills from being stocked with all these items," Thielemann says.

Thielemann likes to work with old suitcases. The shop includes one that serves as an accent table ("The base is a director's chair," she says) and another made into a footstool ("I upholstered the top to make a footstool. The legs are from a bed, and the trim is baling twine," she says).

Many of her pieces have the popular "shabby chic" look -- painted or finished to look old -- such as pendant lights made of funnels, lamps made of old buckets and twine, and benches made from old beds.

Thielemann recommends:

• Using reproduction Edison light bulbs, which blend well with the shabby chic look -- especially in pieces where the bulb will be visible.

• Getting connected with like-minded people who share your passion, online and in person.

• Selling items on marketing sites such as Etsy ( is a good way to build a market for the pieces you make.

The Hobbyist

By day, Syble McCleskey works as the office manager for a radio station in Searcy, but she spends nights and weekends with glue gun in hand making whimsical yard art out of glassware and other materials that she sells at craft shows and fairs.

Her hobby grew out of her love of glassware. "I've been collecting glassware for 38 years," she says. She looked for ways to use the abundance of pieces she collected at garage sales and thrift stores. Then about five years ago she discovered the Garden Junk forum on Gardenweb ( "I got to be friends with a bunch of ladies on there. They were always doing stuff and posting stuff, and that got me started."

By combining pieces of different sizes and colors, she creates large totems, decorative flowers and wind chimes. Yes, wind chimes made out of punch cups. She says, "Those punch cups are heavier than you think. I've never had any to break that we didn't [choose to] break."

McCleskey's tips for working with glass include:

• Use GE Silicone II, a paintable silicone caulk, to attach the pieces. The silicone resists water and remains stable in high and low temperatures.

• A diamond drill bit will make holes without shattering the glass.

• Collect clear and white pieces because they can be combined with any color.

• Look for interesting shapes and textured pieces.

Treasure from Trash

Frequenting garage and estate sales, flea markets, thrift stores and checking classified ads or Freecycle -- an online forum where people give and get free things ( -- can provide a wealth of materials for beginning repurposers. Also, don't forget about word of mouth. McCleskey says her friends and co-workers give her all kinds of materials that they want to get rid of but don't want to throw away.

Repurposing old items into new, exciting pieces can transform a home from blah to eco-chic. It also allows you to extend the life of heirlooms, reduce your carbon footprint and transform that piece you can't live with into something you can't live without.

HomeStyle on 08/02/2014

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